A third in a series that I wish you wouldn’t mention to my daughters just yet…
This morning, my neighbor texted me. Her fifth grade daughter realized the one advantage of school being closed for shelter in place: no Human Growth and Development! My friend wondered whether I would be available for virtual lessons in the interim, given my matter-of-fact nature and access to various anatomy texts. It wasn’t the first time that I came dangerously close to taking over the public school’s sex ed curriculum.
I was first exposed to our school district’s approach to the fraught subject when my oldest was in fourth grade. I was left feeling that the school’s approach left much to be desired. All that she seemed to retain from her instruction was a paralyzing fear of pimples and a vague notion of change and butterflies. This left me convinced that I needed to step in before the thing was too derailed. The girl needed some facts, and she needed them quick.
The car being the best place for awkward conversations, I just launched into it, glancing up occasionally to force eye contact in the rear view mirror.
“So,” I announced, “you may have noticed that I bought you some sports bras.”
“Well, that means that you’ve officially entered puberty. Do you know what that means?”
“Something about pimples and change?”
“OK, good. Pimples. Yes. That’s right, that’s why I’ve recommended that you start actually washing your face even when there’s no visible Nutella streaks on it. What else do you know that happens in puberty?”
“You start growing hair?…” vague gestures towards her pits.
“Okay, fine. So, you’ve already started wearing deodorant, so not much will change in your armpit maintenance routine other than if you decide to shave them. And if you DO decide you want to shave them, please let me help you, because bleeding pits are a definite fashion don’t.”
The conversation then wandered to such topics as feminine ideals of beauty and why our showers take longer, European pit hair, and the fact that most dancers don’t seem to sport hairy pits while in fifth position. The general levity of armpit hair seemed like a safe landing strip (pun intended) for the whole purpose of the conversation: the period talk. Every menstruating female has a harrowing tale of when IT started. Some strike a celebratory tone, and at least 50% seem to involve a pool party. This seems statistically unlikely.
I remember the dawning horror as my mother and I convened in the less-trafficked bathroom off the playroom at the end of the house. The irony of my brother’s potty chair parked in the corner struck me, while I was forced to watch the mortifying display of the diapers that I’d now be forced to wear for the rest of my life. So much for toilet training, why bother? A brief time of respite during childhood, and we’d all eventually end up back in diapers of some variety anyway. My cousin, who worked for Kimberly Clark, confirmed my teenage hunch, noting that their marketing plan is to normalize some form of diaper wearing for “every stage of life.”
My mother thoroughly researched every aspect of child rearing up to about the aforementioned toilet training stage. However, mom sort of phoned it in on a lot of the later stages. No carefully prepared Welcome to Womanhood basket for me, instead I was presented with a brick of of sanitary pads that, given their bulk and absorbency, must have been leftover from one of her numerous birthing extravaganzas.
I was determined that Natalie would be more prepared and have menstruation normalized. I plowed on:
“So, another thing that happens during puberty is periods. We’ve talked some about that. Can you tell me what you know about periods?”
“There’s a little bit of blood …” vague gesture.
How to prepare her. How to let her know that the “little bit” was a white lie perpetuated by nervous health educators through the ages? When I was around her age I stumbled across a book in the library, I’ve forgotten the title. A young slave girl describes her cycle as having something to do with gravel scraping down her insides and causing, crazy amounts of pain and crime-scene level blood. Mom found this book and, while not censoring it completely, encouraged me to step away from the less than factual accounting. Of course I immediately devoured the entire book and, along with it, a healthy dose of fear and respect for the old menstrual cycle.
Natalie did not accidentally read this charming work of juvenile fiction. She was blissfully clueless. Time to ruin that; I just laid it all on the line. “Well, it’s more than a little. It’s enough that, if you don’t have something to catch it, it will in fact soak through your clothing.”
“Fear not, the paper products industry created a dizzying area of options, and I will stock your bathroom and a cute, discreet bag for your backpack, such that when you need them, they are available. I’ll show you how to put them in your underwear so that it’s not a big deal.”
“So I have to wear a diaper for one day every month?”
Way to go Kimberly Clark, already anticipating the diaper. “Well, it actually lasts more than one day…”
“Yes. It will be fine. I’m sorry that you are being taken by surprise by this, I suppose I’m partially to blame…”
“Well, yeah, it’s not exactly what we learned in school! I thought it was going to be like needing a band aid one day a month. Geez.”
“What, exactly, did your teacher tell you about periods?”
“I don’t know, she mostly focused on the butterflies and acne…”
And there it was. All the of the reading on feminist topics, all of my own body acceptance issues, eagerness to please, dating the wrong people, all of it flashed back in my mind. Could I save her from this? Her friends? Was this my moment? Could I provide that turning point in their lives, such that she and her peers wouldn’t need surreptitious code words about Aunt Flo? Wouldn’t need to discreetly walk ahead of their friends through the hall to check for period stains? What about the rest of it? Could a good factual source of biologic and feminist principles steel them against sexting, pill parties, and all the rest of the crap that I’m currently working hard to pretend will never darken my door? I could be that person! I would be the Messiah to the Southwood Glen Elementary feminine population! I could–”
“Mom, I see what you’re thinking. Don’t get all volunteerish about this. Just buy me some pads, show me how to use them, but whatever you do PLEASE don’t volunteer to teach my classmates about puberty.”
So, yeah. It wasn’t my time to shine. But maybe now it’s time to shine VIRTUALLY? Let’s not run this by my girls though, all right?
We didn’t get new clothes all that often, and brand-new clothes seldom. Easter was an exception to the rule. Mom took us shopping at JCPenney’s or Sears, allowing us to choose from racks of impractical, pastel dresses. When I was little, we also wore Easter bonnets, back when department stores had sections that included fancy hats for little girls as a standard option. When the boys came around, they were forced into pastel, vested outfits with clip on bow ties too.
When my girls were little, I forced them into coordinating dresses on Easter and was in my prime. This year, they wore shorts and T shirts and were just as happy.
Every household has a different way that they “do” Easter, a different set of rules whereby the magical bunny delivered candy and small toys into the hands of kids, just coming down from the sugar high of hoarded Valentine candy. In our house, we pulled out the same plastic baskets from year to year and filled them with re-used, cellophane grass in either green or pink. Strands of this clear plastic monstrosity could still be found hiding in the house well into summer, sticking to bare feet. The bunny would leave candy and trinkets in the baskets. The only things hidden were eggs. They real, hard boiled eggs that we colored the previous Friday. Mom always made sure to keep count of how many eggs there were, as none could be left behind. Because, as I mentioned, she hid real, sulfur-smelling boiled eggs in the house.
Inevitably, Mom couldn’t remember exactly where she hid them all and, equally inevitably, we were missing a few Sunday night. They always turned up in a day or two. Except for that one year when we didn’t discover the errant egg until well into August, nestled in the top of the light fixture over the dining room table. Mom must have went to dust it or change a bulb, and discovered the egg. I don’t think it smelled at all. It went into some strange desiccation mode. The boiled egg withing the bright green shell had contracted onto itself. When one shook the egg, it felt as though there were a small rubber ball rattling inside the shell. And we all shook it on numerous occasions, as mom kept the egg tucked behind the kitchen TV as a sort of conversation piece, pulled out at get-togethers as an ice breaker.
When I became and Easter bunny, we only hid plastic eggs filled with candy. We still dye eggs, of course, on Good Friday. Everyone must have their name egg, and I derive great satisfaction from multi-dipped, ombre eggs. The smell of vinegar will always evoke memories of carefully suspended eggs and paper towels splattered in pasted. Our dyed eggs are brought out for decoration on the Easter table and quickly eaten. Not hidden under the couch, inside a Barbie house, or in someone’s shoe (all “classic” hiding places in the Bier house.)
Mom made a lamb cake every year for Easter. She bought the Wilton mold when I was an infant or before, as I can’t recall an Easter in which the hallowed lamb cake was not attempted. The first half dozen years or so, she must have still been working on the recipe. Until she found the right mix, the lamb generally fell apart in some way, and was a lamb in spirit only.
Eventually she found a good, solid pound cake recipe that held its shape well, and perfected the baking time to ensure that it actually cooked all the way through its lamby self. The Easters of my childhood, before she went to work and when there were three girls at home to help with the baking, the lamb cake was in its glory. We would carefully pipe buttercream on the lamb using a start tip, and dye coconut green to create the lamb’s bed. It was a delicious pound cake recipe, and the buttercream was equally delectable. The lamb was gone by Easter eve.
When I left home for college, I don’t think that anyone was nearly as fastidious with the lamb cakes. I recall a couple of years when my brothers were in charge of decorations and the eyes were either shocking pink jelly beans or strips of licorice whips formed into an “X”. Oh, well, still tasted good. This year, mom baked only for herself and dad, and therefore made a miniature lamb cake, using a loaf pan and a plastic lamb head on a pick that she kept around for emergencies.
I didn’t bake a lamb cake this year. The girls are baking some cupcakes from supplies that Grandma sent them. I’m in charge of roast potatoes and salad while Jimmy prepares the best form of lamb–smoke leg.
Hello! I haven’t written about genealogy for quite some time. Well, that’s because I was working on a manuscript about the modern-day genealogical mystery in which I was involved. For those of you who are interested in that aspect of my blog, I’ve changed up my home screen to have a nice clear link to navigate through any information that I’ve posted of that nature.
With that being said, I’d like to wade back into the family history foray by presented a slightly edited section from the above-mentioned manuscript. The definitive answer to a question posed by many an inquiring Janesvillian:
How, exactly are the Biers and the Parrs related??
Of the open questions in my casebook, I was uniquely suited to answer, “How are the Biers related to the Parrs?” I understood genetics and the Bier family tree. I did not understand the Parr family tree. I did find a ten-year old note on my to-do list: “figure out the Parr – Bier connection.” Huh. Too bad I never got around to that. I needed to query a fellow researcher who had knowledge of the Parr tree. Knowing none, that meant turning to Ancestry.com.
Ancestry.com has been around for awhile, well before it got into the DNA game. It is a website for doing genealogy research, charting one’s growing tree, and sharing results. There are aspects of working on Ancestry that I really enjoy. Ancestry catalogues scores of primary sources, many of which include images of the original documents. In the past, genealogists spent a lot of time in small historical libraries, poring through handwritten documents to score finds like these. Ancestry makes a lot of these references available and easily searchable from one’s computer. Don’t get me wrong–I still love a morning spent buried in the stacks of a small local library, and this type of research remains absolutely necessary. But slowly, Ancestry is digitizing these libraries’ troves.
Another nice feature of Ancestry are the green-leaf hints. Once you have even basic elements of your tree input into the site, it starts feeding you hints upon hints upon hints based upon those names and dates. The hints appear as enticing green leaves next to your relatives’ names, just begging to be clicked and chased down. And it’s so easy to go down the rabbit hole of these hints! They might lead to other peoples’ trees, census records, social security death records, any number of records that may or may not have something to do with your relative flagged with a green leaf. On more than one occasion, my husband has tried to tear my attention away from the seduction of the Ancestry green leaf, commenting, “You are more interested in dead people than in us!” It’s the green leaves! They are irresistible!
The problem with the seductive green leaves, though, is that Ancestry makes it almost too easy to add their suggestions to your research. There is no one reminding you to “double-check your info!” before merging it into your rapidly-growing tree. This danger is especially true when it comes to incorporating data from other members’ trees. While it is possible to build a tree on Ancestry privately, you are encouraged to share them publicly. Then, any possible overlap between different people’s trees sparks green leaf hints. A few clicks, and some anonymous person’s data is grafted onto the other’s tree. What often ends up happening is that multiple people share the same data and family trees, repeatedly copying and pasting from the original researcher who created the tree in the first place. Did that original person use good, verified data? Who knows. And Ancestry doesn’t clear its throat loudly to alert you to the fact that you might be making a mistaken graft. Instead, it lulls you into a click-happy trance with all of those green leaves.
I tread lightly when it comes to trusting other members’ trees. And I never, never graft them onto my own. Call me snooty, but I don’t want to accidentally taint all of my carefully sourced work. I also keep my own tree private; it is invisible to other users of Ancestry. I learned the hard way that not everyone may agree with the version of the truth as represented in my tree.
In addition to putting in names and dates, I populate my tree with all sorts of decorative fruits and flowers–pictures, maps, documents, and stories. While I don’t present the stories as biographical facts, I do include them as attachments. About ten years ago, I uploaded my tree and shared it on Ancestry, and I mistakenly included everything–facts and anecdotes alike. Unfortunately, one of the anecdotes was about a distant relative who, according to my great-aunts, killed herself “because her husband brought home a venereal disease.” This little tidbit was nestled away in my public Ancestry tree. Eventually, a descendent of that woman discovered it and wrote me a scathing message about posting such gossipy information publicly. Mortified, I deleted my public tree altogether and stayed completely away from Ancestry for years out of shame and trepidation. I still had a genealogy management program on my own computer on which I continued to grow my tree; I just never synced it up to the online Ancestry world.
Well, it was time to return. I renewed my Ancestry subscription and dove back into the familiar, overwhelming Ancestry.com website. I quickly found the Bier-Parr connection. In all of the Parr trees, “Frank Bier” was the founding Wisconsin ancestor. My Frank Bier. Frank Bier of the Valentine Ten. He of the amazing cheekbones. He with the three priest sons. Frank Bier appeared as the father of “Mary Bier” (mother unknown). Mary Bier eventually married a Charles Parr and established the Parr dynasty of southern Wisconsin.
This was news to me. As far as my records indicated, Frank Bier had neither a daughter named Mary nor a Parr relationship. According to everything I knew, he was married only once, to Mary Klein. The Parr trees included this marriage to Mary Klein along with all of its children, but as a second marriage.
Was it possible that Frank Bier actually had been married twice, a fact heretofore overlooked in my Bier research? Or had he fathered a daughter named Mary out of wedlock?
A quick review of the facts as presented on these Parr trees answered my question: no way. My Frank Bier, of the Valentine Ten, was only 11 years old at the time that Mary Bier, matriarch of the Parrs, was born. She simply couldn’t have been his daughter. It wasn’t the same Frank Bier–there must have been two of them! The founder of the Parr family was a different Frank Bier, and all of these Parr family trees were mixing him up with Frank of the Valentine Ten!
Here’s how it might have happened. Somewhere along the line, a researcher noticed that Mary Bier’s father was named Frank, that Valentine Bier had a son named Frank, and created a tree showing both of these Frank Biers as the same person. And then Ancestry encouraged people to copy and paste the mistake, and no one ever bothered to check the math. Repeated enough times, the idea that the Parrs were descended from Valentine Bier via his son, Frank, became an accepted truth. Later on, I learned that this conflation and assumption appeared on handwritten charts shared between Parr family members for years, well before the advent of Ancestry.com. I wanted to shout this discovery from the rooftops. There are two of them! You’ve got the wrong guy! But alas, Ancestry does not have a town crier function.
So, who was this other Frank Bier, whose daughter co-founded the Wisconsin Parr dynasty? I started referring to him as Mystery Frank while I attempted to sort it out. I found a census record indicating that Mystery Frank lived in Rock County in 1860, prior to the arrival of the Valentine Biers in 1882. I confirmed this on an 1860 plat map. In 1860, Mystery Frank Bier owned 40-acre parcel 10 miles from the eventual Valentine Bier homestead. Mystery Frank and Valentine must have been related somehow. Where did Mystery Frank graft onto my own Bier family tree?
I had to construct a Parr tree that went all the way back to the common ancestor between the Mystery Frank Bier and Valentine Bier. I knew where I needed to focus my search. The Zamrsk Archives in the Czech Republic.
During the Bier Trip to the Homeland the previous summer, our bus briefly stopped in the Czech hamlet of Zamrsk. Our tour guide arranged the stop to show me the building where parish records from the outlying Bohemian village churches were archived. She warned me that I wouldn’t be able to enter–the hours were limited and appointments were required. However, she assured me, all of the records were digitized and available online. See? She shared a copy of Valentine Bier’s baptismal record that she made from the digitized archives, reassuring me that they were quite easy to navigate. Resigned, I gazed at the outside of the archives building, a renovated prison. As the group stretched our collective legs, a few of us happened on a family picnic and were offered beers–the drinkable kind. We continued on our way to Ketzelsdorf; I added Zamrsk Digital Archives to my genealogy to-do list for a later day.
When we returned home, I fully intended to spend time with those digital records. However, I was daunted. The files were numerous. They were catalogued in Czech. They were handwritten in German. They were simply overwhelming. Without a specific question in hand, there was no hook to lure me into tackling these dense archives. With the Kathleen mystery, however, I had a specific task: Find Valentine Bier. Find Mystery Frank Bier. Find their common ancestor. Solve the mystery of the Bier-Parr relationship.
I dove into the digital fray of the Archives at Zamrsk.
First, I downloaded all of the zip files for the village of Ketzelsdorf. There were about 20 unique file sets, each containing a different church record book. Record books handwritten, in German, several hundred years ago. I identified a promising register, baptisms, and opened it. And I stared in transfixed horror at the pages that might as well have been henna drawings. I couldn’t turn to Google translate for help, because I couldn’t even decipher the letters of the German words! They were a series of inky tracings, meaningless loops and whorls!
Desperate, I Googled things like “how can I translate these old German registers?” or “deciphering old German text for the non-German speaker.” Miraculously, I found a self-published book amusingly titled, If I Can, You Can Decipher Germanic Records. It might as well have been the Rosetta Stone itself!
If Edna M. Bentz hadn’t written this book, I’m not sure that I would have ever been able to make any sense of the Zamrsk Archives on my own. Edna’s miraculous volume gave translations for words frequently used in genealogy, such as “date,” “birth,” “death,” and “legitimate.” I made a list of the words that I needed to be on the lookout for, such as “Taufe” for baptism and “Mutter” for mother. Perhaps most importantly, the book provided examples of every way that a letter might be written in the German script common to the 18th and 19th centuries. There was an entire page of variations devoted to each letter–a separate page for capital and lower-case. The variation was overwhelming! I felt how today’s school children must feel when confronted with cursive writing. I wanted to reach out to Edna and thank her personally. Unfortunately, she died several years before I discovered her book.
My next big breakthrough was discovering that one of the scanned books was actually a master index of births. It referenced all of the other volumes, listing only the barest of facts and page numbers. The actual registers of births, deaths and baptisms were much wordier and therefore more confusing. I had no chance of deciphering these sentences, even with my handy translation book. The master index, however, was far less wordy and far more predictable: name, date, parents’ names and birthdates, house number. And there were only a few words, generally names or numbers, in each uniform, predictable column. This was it! Huzzah, now I had only to turn to the “B” section and find Frank and Valentine Bier!
Except that there was at least one index page per year of Biers! I had a vague notion that Ketzelsdorf had a lot of Biers, but this was absolutely insane. At least 30 Bier babies were born per year. Further, the same given names were repeated over and over–about six common names each for boys and girls. There were half a dozen Franz [Frank] Biers born per year in Ketzelsdorf. I clearly wouldn’t be able to just scan for the names I wanted and go from there; there was simply too much repetition. How to find Mystery Frank and Valentine needles in the haystack of Biers?
Luckily, the births index contained one more important data point for each entry: a house number. House numbering took off in Europe in the mid-18th century, and the same numbering system survives in many places to this day–including Ketzelsdorf. Therefore, I logicked, assuming that families didn’t tend to move around very much, I could attempt to identify family units by combining patterns of three variables: mother’s name, father’s name, and house number.
It was time. Time for a sortable document. Time for a spreadsheet. Over the next month, whenever I had a spare minute or two, I’d pull up the “B” section of the baptismal register and enter data for the Bier babies. I knew that Valentine was born in 1842 and Mystery Frank in 1844, so I catalogued 1800 to 1850, hoping to capture them, their parents, and their grandparents.
I couldn’t concentrate on this task for very long at one sitting. It simultaneously required immense focus and was terribly boring. The data entry portion was boring, but the deciphering of script was incredibly difficult, even with Edna’s handy book. I added several new versions of lettering to those that she provided as I progressed, as different handwriting appeared. The index contained page-years of “legible” script, followed abruptly by years of chicken scratch, corresponding to the arrival of a new parish priest. In the end, I filled a lot of fields with question marks, never quite settling on which letters were written. For example, it took me about a month to realize that what I thought was a “G” was actually a “Th.” A whole world of “Theresias” was opened to me. I only hoped that I had enough useable data mixed with the question marks to identify the family trends that I needed.
In the end, I entered data on 380 Biers born in Ketzelsdorf between 1800-1850. Then I had to make sense of it, and shake Mystery Frank Bier and Valentine Bier out of the pile of names. One stroke of luck was the name “Valentine.” His parents were creative namers in a sea of uniformity. There was only one “Valentin” born in the entire time span that I catalogued, on February 14, 1842. They named him for the saint whose feast day he shared. When I found his entry, I was relieved. The register’s information matched with what I had in my records, down to the house number in which he was born–number 78.
A second stroke of luck? I knew the name of Valentine’s brother, Anton. I found an Anton with the same parents as Valentine, Johann and Victoria Bier. Strangely, Anton was born in number 136, not number 78 like Valentine. When Valentine was born, Johann and Victoria were living with Victoria’s folks at number 78. After that, they moved in with Johann’s folks at number 136 where Anton was born. Number 136 was actually the Bier family home, the place where all of the answers resided. If I didn’t know that Valentine and Anton were brothers, I would have entirely ignored number 136. Believe it or not, there were several Johann and Victoria Bier couples milling about Ketzelsdorf in the 1850’s. I don’t know that I’d have otherwise connected the #78 Johann & Victoria with the #136 Johann & Victoria.
Once I identified the correct Bier household, it was relatively simple to identify all of the babies and parents of number 136, back to Valentine’s grandparents. Long story short? Valentine Bier and Mystery Frank Bier were first cousins. They shared a common grandfather, the delightfully named Adalbert Bier. Recall that Mystery Frank Bier’s daughter was the matriarch of the Parr dynasty. Although there was nowhere to actually announce it, I could announce that the Biers and the Parrs were rather distantly related indeed, back to number 136 in Ketzelsdorf and Adalbert Bier in the late 1700’s. Whew.
I love a nap and would happily take one every day if time and my own sense of decency allowed it. I can rattle off a my Top Ten Naps of all time if anyone is ever interested. I consider all of the post-call naps of my pre 80-hour-workweek-rule intern year to be a single item entry. These were the naps of the truly bone tired. No interruptions by dreams or a sense of the passage of time, waking up in the early evening with dried drool on my chin and the knowledge that, in three days’ time, I’d be doing it all over again.
Some of the other best naps have to do with location. We took a trip with Jimmy’s family once to the Cape in Massachusetts and rented a house that had a loft overlooking a large family room addition. There was a cot, a thick quilt, and a skylight. Need I say more? And then the post redeye flight nap in a downtown Philadelphia hotel with the crispest, heaviest white comforter. An assortment of beach naps at various locales round out the top ten.
In the Bier family, we acknowledge that there is some shadowy genetic tendency toward little to no sleep latency. That is, we fall asleep at the drop of a hat. People who visit or marry into the family are confused when, after a large family meal, we move into the family room to “watch the game,” which is really just code for “fall asleep immediately, possibly including drooling.” The lucky ones will have secured a corner spot on the couch. If not so fortunate, we will just throw our heads back and fall asleep wherever we landed. I’ve seen my dad and his brother fall asleep on a hardwood floor, as long as they have a cushion or windbreaker to ball up under their heads.
My dad’s uncle, Father Ed, apparently actually had narcolepsy, the extreme version of this tendency. Rumor has it that he used to sometimes fall asleep in the middle of saying mass. Catholic rules being what they are, namely that a mass once started must be completed, a helpful nun was always positioned at the end of the front pew, tasked with the job of nudging him awake as needed. Why they didn’t assign this to the pre-Vatican Two bell carrying acolyte remains unclear.
My siblings and I have been texting a lot more frequently, and we all seem remarkably OK with being forced to stay in our houses, the more easily to take a nap here or there as we are so inclined. I’m not going to call any of the five of us out by name, as I’m sure the quality of our work has not suffered for this napping, and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s cover. Just before the NYC quarantine took effect, my youngest brother, Pat, moved to a new apartment. Before I heard anything about the larger kitchen and bathroom, I learned that it had a good spot for napping. The true mark of a good home.